Bergman's Bad Girl: 1953's 'Monika' didn't divinely punish its sinful star. (Photo courtesy Red Vic Movie House)

Another Ingmar Bergman in 'Monika'

Dennis Harvey November 6, 2008

Ingmar Bergman: Master of Sleaze? OK, that’s not exactly how we remember the maker of such deeply serious classics as The Seventh Seal, Persona and Cries and Whispers. (Unless you consider erotic the latter’s scene where Ingrid Thulin inserts a glass shard in her vagina, then wipes the blood over her face. In which case, please seek help.) But you might have thought otherwise from the American marketing of some early Bergman films, at a time when many European movies—even wildly inappropriate ones without a speck of sex appeal—were suggestively advertised as "shocking," "frank," "bold," and so forth, usually with art depicting a barely-clad Eurobabe barely resembling anyone in the flick.

Actually, at least one early Bergman really was pretty steamy for its era, if hardly in a sleazy way. 1953’s Monika, which plays the Red Vic this Sunday and Monday in a newly restored print, does indeed deal with underage, guiltlessly unfaithful femininity, out-of-wedlock sex and pregnancy. It sports brief but fully-bare nudity. And unlike any remotely comparable English-language film of the era, our semi-sympathetic heroine doesn’t get run over by a train, lightning-struck, or otherwise divinely punished for her "sins."

Originally called Summer with Monika, it first reached American shores shorn of 35 minutes, slapped with a sexy score by "exotica" maestro Les Baxter, and retitled with laughable reductiveness Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl. It was billed as "A Picture for Wide Screens and Broad Minds." The sleaze-ifying worked: Though relatively little-remembered today, Monika remains, incredibly, Bergman’s biggest U.S. commercial success ever. I guess the raincoat crowd just wasn’t stimulated by Fanny and Alexander.

It would be interesting to see that drastically changed Bad Girl for comparison purposes now that the complete 96-minute Monika—a deceptively "simple" tale covering a great deal of complex tonal/emotional ground—is back in the spotlight. It may not be Bergman’s most intellectual or profound effort, but it’s quite wonderful nonetheless.

We’re introduced to gum-chewing, eye-cocking, beret-wearing cutie Monika (Harriet Andersson) at a Stockholm cafe as she bums a light from guileless, instantly smitten Harry (Lars Ekborg), then boldly asks him out on a date that night. She’s 17, he’s 19, yet both seem older—already oppressed by hard-luck family circumstances and disagreeable employment. She works at a vegetable store where she’s constantly pawed by male coworkers; he’s a porcelain-warehouse stockboy forever criticized by his superiors.

Living in squalor with her parents and way too many younger siblings, Monika storms out when after a drunken father’s slap. She runs to Harry, whose solution is to board her in the cabin of a speedboat his father is too sickly to use these days. She dumps her job, and he soon follows suit. They thus spend an idyllic summer of lovemaking, naked bathing and general frolicking—scenes rapturously shot by Gunnar Fischer, the brilliant cinematographer whose early partnership with Bergman became overshadowed by Sven Nykvist’s later one.

This beautiful and yes, sensual section—where Harriet Andersson’s nudity is glimpsed with refreshing naturalness—lands somewhere between The Blue Lagoon and Bergman’s own prior Summer Interlude as a lyrical portrait of a physical yet pure love amidst nature.

But like all idylls, it is doomed to end. Before and after this midsection, Monika (which was adapted by Pers Anders Fogelstrom from his own novel—one of the few times Bergman shot someone else’s script) is closer to Italian neo-realism, viewing its imperfect human relations with a blunt yet nonjudgmental eye. Andersson, who would erratically work with Bergman over the next three decades, was this movie’s breakout sexpot star. But Ekborg, dead from cancer just 15 years later at age 43, provides its soul. Over the film’s expansive narrative course, love, duty, and fatherhood change his character in ways that the haplessly immature and self-absorbed Monika is incapable of. Parts of Monika remain as erotic as ever. Yet it’s as far from mere sexploitation as Ingmar Bergman’s most sober later works.